Google Desktop review — check out the cool new beta version!

google, technology, tips

Introduction

What is Google Desktop (“GD”)?
Google Desktop (formerly known as Google Desktop Search or “GDS”) is free program from Google that enables you to search for data on your computer much like you use Google to search the Web. You can look for and open e-mails, photos, music files, PDFs, and lots of other good stuff. No ads are shown. Below you can see a screenshot of me searching for “drink.”

google desktop search hyper results

How to get GD

Go to http://desktop.google.com/ and follow the very simple instructions. Note that you have a choice of the latest version (2.0 beta — a version still in testing, described in the rest of this post, or 1.0 final).

A brief background on my love / not-so-love relationship with GD
I had just about given up on GD. Initially impressed and pleased with the product, I was losing love for GD as I became more seduced by the find-as-you-type capability from competitors such as X1 and MSN Desktop Search. Sometime straying, I would somewhat grudgingly come back to GD, appreciative of the handy contextual Web snippets but wishing there was a product that combined the richness of this with find-as-you-type speediness.

Just in time… Google Desktop Search v2 (GD2) is that charming fleet-footed if still a bit gawky new friend.

For those too lazy or impatient to read through my entire review, I’ll summarize with this…
Google Desktop offers a delightful mix of usefulness and fun. For those who have humungous amounts of data and need to finely drill down by multiple fields, X1 and Copernic may remain more favorable options. But for the vast majority of geeks and non-geeks alike, GD’s speed, light footprint, and currently-entertaining-if-not-yet-essential non-search extras will likely be enough to earn a place on their desktop.

Key improvements

GD2 is a significant step above GDS. Here’s a sampling of what’s new and improved:

  • Find-as-you-type (search results quickly pop up as you type each letter, narrowing the search with each additional letter)
  • Search Gmail and network drives.
  • Search Outlook items like tasks, notes, appointments. Search directly from the Outlook interface, too.
  • A nifty sidebar (discussed in detail below) with an open API!
  • Items moved (even from an IMAP to non-IMAP folder) are now handled more effectively by GD.

Installation and pre-installation

Installation of GD is easy and pretty painless. On my reasonably beefy P4, the download took a few seconds and the entire install process took under 3 minutes. This, of course, doesn’t include indexing time, which (though I didn’t time it) seemed only a few hours for my drive with 100+ megs of stuff AND my Gmail account.

Google’s GD privacy policy, thankfully written in English rather than legalese, is similarly straightforward. Highlights:

  • The contents of your computer aren’t shared with Google or other folks without your explicit permission.
  • A limited amount of non-personal info is sent to Google to help in troubleshooting, software development, and content personalization. You can opt out of this if you want.
  • You have control over what GD indexes.
  • You can uninstall GD if you like (duh!).

Google walks you through some basic configuration options and then, voila, you’re done. Well, almost done. You have to go read a book, ride a bike, or do something away from your computer (ack!) for a while if you want Google to actually index your stuff. And hey, make sure your (supported) e-mail program is open in the meantime, or GD won’t be able to index your mail.

The nifty GD Sidebar

The sidebar consists of the following components, any of which may be either not shown or minimized. Items in green are ones I personally find particularly cool.

  • Email
    This only supports Gmail for now. It shows a bit of each recent email’s title, AUTHOR, and time of receipt ([x] minutes ago).
  • News
    This shows a number (your choice) of headlines from Google News… article title, source, and time of posting ([x] minutes ago). This is very frequently updated and you can actually see new items gradually push down older items in a nice gradual sliding effect (which I suppose some could find distracting).
  • Web Clips
    This presents “feeds” to you either from sites you’ve frequently visited and/or from sites you specify. For instance, after I visited Wired.com, this sidebar component started including headlines from Wired. When I visited a friend’s blog, it started including headlines from her blog. You get the idea.
  • Scratch Pad
    Pretty much like what it sounds like. Write plain-text notes here and they’ll stay here :-).
  • Photos
    GD crawls through your photo collection (which you can bound by specific limits) and displays a mini-slideshow here… a new photo fades in every 15 seconds by default. Clicking on the photo takes you to a list of recently shown photos. Clicking on one of those photos brings up the full-sized version. In addition to grabbing photos from your hard drive, this panel item also optionally shows photos from sites you visit.
  • What’s Hot
    I’m not exactly sure how this works, but it seems like some sort of Zeitgeist / Blogpulse type of thing highlighting the Web pages that have recently been popular. I find the stuff on www.spurl.net to be more comprehensive and entertaining.
  • Quick View
    This panel item lists items or pages you’ve recently accessed or viewed. Sounds great in theory, but I’ve found it pretty useless in practice, since it tends to show files that my computer accesses frequently (preference files, etc.), or files that I regularly — but indirectly — access on the ‘net.
  • Stocks
    Add stocks or stock indices, see the numbers. Pretty basic.
  • Weather
    Add a city, see the highs, lows, and so on. Pulls from the same weather data you see if you type weather [zipcode] into Google… that is to say, not terribly accurate data, IMHO.

Information from each sidebar can also be viewed in a larger panel; for instance, you can click on the << mark on the title bar of News, and you'll get a larger (attached) window showing news items. Click on one of those news items and you'll see a snippet. Click on the title in the snippet, and you'll be brought to the original Web page. Whew! Sounds complicated, but it's all rather intuitive. You can also easily drag-and-drop resize, and minimize sidebar components. Most importantly, I see this sidebar as just a glimpse of stuff to come. I have no doubt that people will create and share their own useful or fun sidebar items via GD plugins pretty quickly, especially given that the sidebar — as GD on the whole — has an API that independent developers can write for.

Google Desktop Search stocks sidebar Google Desktop Search email sidebar Google Desktop Search photos sidebar Google Desktop Search scratch pad sidebar
Google Desktop Search quick view sidebar Google Desktop Search news sidebar Google Desktop Search web clips sidebar Google Desktop Search weather sidebar

Google Desktop Search news sidebar expanded

Configurability and options
GD is reasonably configurable. You can set, among other things…

  • What types of data you want indexed (email, chats, Web history, etc.)
  • Your Gmail signin info (so GD can search your Gmail)
  • Additional hard drives and network drives to search
  • Web sites and hard drive directories to exclude from searching
  • Encrypt or not-encrypt for the GD database (default is unencrypted… better speed!)
  • How you want the search box displayed (as part of the sidebar, as described above, or as a small box in your taskbar or a small floating box you can place anywhere on your desktop)

Pictured below are the main options box (via the systray icon) and the sidebar preferences box respectively:

google desktop search optionsgoogle desktop search preferences

Strengths, weaknesses, and AdamWishes
GD has some stark strengths and weaknesses when compared to some rather admirable competitors.

STRENGTHS

  • Small footprint.
    Unlike other desktop search programs I’ve tried, GD never slows down my system… either in indexing or when conducting a search. 
  • Plugin architecture:
    Like the MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search (whew! just MSNDS henceforth!), GD provides a framework where developers can create neat plugins that extend the functionality of and even improve the interface of the software.
  • Ability to search desktop and Webmail (well, at least Gmail) simultaneously:
    For those who maintain mail accounts both locally (e.g., on Outlook) and on Gmail, GD is the only offering that can search both simultaneously.
  • Enjoyable extras:
    Do we really need a mini photo slideshow along with tickers for news, weather, and other stuff? Not really. But, if even a mere guilty pleasure, it’s a treat having them all optionally stacked together in a well-behaved docked sidebar with GD. And the scratch pad is more useful than I initially suspected it would be. So, too, does the frequently-updating news component provide a greater amount of engaging information than I initially expected. Oh, and one particularly fun use I’ve found for the Hyper find-as-you-type feature: entering in the name of a song on the spur-of-the-moment, hitting [enter] and then (as it’s quickly loaded into my music player), hearing the song played. Much faster than loading up music software (winamp, wmp, whatever) and searching for the song there. 
  • Fast and comprehensive indexing:I’ve found GD to be among the fastest of the bunch to include files and e-mails, and — particularly with various plugins — it boasts a pretty comprehensive list of supported filetypes (though if memory serves me right, X1 may still take the prize in the comprehensiveness if not the speed area). 
  • Web historyThis is a biggie for me! I haven’t seen any other desktop search program that lets me not only pull up Web pages I’ve visited (via a full-text search!), but even keeps cached copies. Super-useful in research (what was that page I saw last week or the week before about new advances in speech recognition?…)

WEAKNESSES

  • Search results narrowing by field:
    Here is where competitors like X1 and Copernic shine. Type a few letters of a mail recipient and then refine it with a few letters from the subject line. Boom! Or drill down by one of at least a dozen other useful fields as an extension of a general search. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the feature I still miss in GD.
  • Full-pane previews:
    While I appreciate GD’s snippets in the Web browser view, I sometimes yearn for the full-pane preview I grew accustomed to with competing products. 
  • Limited hits in find-as-you-type:
    While GD’s inclusion of “hyper” (the technology (?) that lets you display up to ten hits as you enter letter by letter of a search query) is quite valuable, it’s frustrating that it’s limited to a mere ten hits. Contrast this with the competitors seemingly almost-limitless view of as-you-type results. 
  • Lack of synchronization of panel extras:When you type a useful note in your scratchpad at home, you may find yourself surprised and miffed that it doesn’t show up on your GD panel on your work computer. Indeed, as far as I can tell, there’s no sharing of configurations or scratchpad data at all. You’ll need to set up your preferred stocks, weather, and other data bits on each installation, and that’s rather annoying. So, too, I’d assume, are “remove this” requests not synchronized from one installation to another, resulting in you dismissing those annoying whatsit Webclips on multiple computers. Since GD provides the option to log in to one’s Gmail account, it’s a pity that they didn’t (yet) go one step further and have initial and ongoing personalization efforts attached to one’s account and affect all of one’s GD installations.

ADAMWISHES

  • More keyboardability!
    Once in the Hyper search box, I’d like to be able to to select numbers 0-9 to quickly select a search option, or letters A-whatever to select another option (search more, etc.). Heck, while we’re at it, why can’t I access items within a panel component (e.g., News) with a keyboard shortcut, too? 🙂 Incidentally, I’ve suggested the former UI idea to the Gmail team as well; on the pull-down options, why should I have to use my mouse? Why can’t they let me type the first letter of an option, e.g., R) Mark as read, S) Add Star and so on? But I digress. 
  • Filetype and field shortcut listing, please
    I know I can specify from: and to: and I think there’s type, but what other magic things can I modify use to narrow my searches with? Ah, okay, I just noticed some details here, but surely there must be more? Or there should be, I’d hope, for us powergeeks :-). 
  • More Outlook friendliness
    When I type Fred Smith in Hyper, one of the ten item listings should be his contact entry if one exists. And I’m still trying to figure out how I can look up a contact specifically (contact: [name] doesn’t work). Also, while I like having a search option with Outlook, it’s currently rather hobbled since the field listings aren’t flexible; noting a set of e-mails are from me doesn’t do much good if I can’t scan quickly who they’re to.

* * *

Okay, enough of my blathering. Now it’s your turn!
– Have you tried GD? If so, what did you think? If not, are you going to try it?
– What other desktop search programs have you tried? If you’ve also used GD, how do you think it compares?
– What would you most like to see added to or improved in GD?
– Got any GD questions?

Oh, and here are some other cool sites talking about this latest GD version:

Review by Nathan at InsideGoogle
Search Engine Journal review

EDITS:

  • 8/22: Changed references to Google Desktop Search to the correct name of Google Desktop (“GD”)
2 comments… add one
  • John Mar 4, 2008

    I love this software, i need not go for system search now. like i search on web with google.com, i can find each and every details which is stored in my pc with a query search. lot lot more useful software.

  • SEO Florida Aug 7, 2008

    I agree with above written comments,
    Finally i can say it’s the best offline tool which i have used.
    But i don’t yet agree with better competition in OS market with MS.
    As MS can not think about Google to beat in SE’s industry.

What do you think?